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Forty-four people from across south central Mississippi recently received help with legal guardianships so that children can attend school and receive health care benefits.
Six local attorneys donated their time to help low-income people who applied for guardianships during the free Guardianship Clinic which was held on Aug. 26 in Mendenhall. Services were offered to residents of Simpson, Smith, Lawrence, Jefferson Davis and Covington counties. Chancery clerks across the 13th Chancery District waived fees for households with annual incomes less than $24,000, and clerks or their deputies from the five counties were at the clinic to file documents.
Chancellor Gerald Martin said, “It’s to help take care of the children.”
Attorney Wesley Broadhead of Mendenhall said, “Simpson County has a good many under-served citizens. A lot of grandparents are now raising their grandchildren with little or no help from the parents. This clinic allows the guardians legal assistance to have the children educated in the public school system.”
Attorney Wesla Sullivan of Mendenhall sees the needs of children in her work as Jefferson Davis County Youth Court Referee and as School Board attorney for Simpson County. “I see the need for guardianships to help place these children in stable homes and better environments to better their well-being and education,” Sullivan said.
The clinic saw grandparents, aunts and uncles, great aunts, cousins and other family members who had taken in children whose parents were deceased, absent or unable to take care of them. The children ranged from babies to teenagers.
A young woman seeking guardianship of two of her teenage cousins explained their circumstances in a hearing before Chancellor David Shoemake. She and her family have cared for the children for the past three years. One of the children has a severe medical condition that requires weekly visits to specialists in Jackson.
“We love them,” she told Judge Shoemake.
Outside the courthouse, with legal paperwork in hand, she said, “It’s a happy ending to a very sad, traumatic thing. It’s an answered prayer.”
She’s paying forward the help she received years ago. “I’ve been a foster child myself. The ones that did step up, they didn’t have to do what they did. They did it out of love.”
The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project and the Thirteenth Chancery Court organized and staffed the clinic. Private practice attorneys who donated their time were Wesley Broadhead, Marc McMillian, Tracey Seghini, Wesla Sullivan and Wade Underwood from Simpson County and attorney Albert Turnage from Lawrence County. Simpson County Circuit Clerk Witt Fortenberry, who is an attorney, assisted. Two representatives of Young Williams, which handles child support services, also were on hand to research records of child support orders.
Judge Martin said, “We had a majority of the Simpson County Bar” show up to help at the clinic. “Our local bar is community minded and willing to help those who can’t afford an attorney. That’s small town law practice.”
Attorney Albert Turnage of Monticello said, “It’s just a way to help people who can’t afford an attorney. All small town attorneys do this. It’s just a way to give back.”
MVLP Executive Director Gayla Carpenter-Sanders said, “Friday’s clinic is an example of how lives can be changed when community comes together. We had our judges, court staff, local attorneys, school district and state and community agencies come together to provide stable, loving home environments for our children.”
MVLP and the Access to Justice Commission have scheduled similar free legal assistance clinics for guardianship and other family law issues in other areas of the state. For more information, see the schedules at these links: https://www.cognitoforms.com/MVLP1/SelfRepresentationLegalClinic and https://www.courts.ms.gov/Legal/CivilLegal.php.
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